Germany and the Turks - it’s complicated

This is a 5-minute read

“It makes me proud that a German company is now so far ahead,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said last week on news that BionTech had developed the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine with over 90 percent efficiency.

It isn’t just the rags-to-riches story of the company’s co-founders - nor the fact that they’re a married couple - that has been picked up upon by the press. The two of them, Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, are also second generation Turkish immigrants. 

This story if from Hochhaus, Germany’s leading English language newsletter. Written and edited by Jörg Luyken and Axel Bard Bringéus. Subscribe here for more stories like this.

Türeci was born in Lastrup, Lower-Saxony to Turkish parents. Şahin came to Germany as a four year old with his mother and reunited with his father, one of the hundreds of thousands of Gastarbeiter who came from Turkey in the early 1960s. 

“With this couple, Germany has a shining example of successful integration,” wrote the business magazine Focus.

But are the scientist couple characteristic of German success in integrating its largest immigrant community - the approximately four million Deutschtürken - or are they in fact an exception?


During the post-war Wirtschaftswunder West Germany had a problem - full employment. Industrial giants such as Bosch and Volkswagen were screaming out for labour. Turkey on the other hand had the opposite issue - mass unemployment. In 1961 the two countries entered a Zweckbündnis by signing a recruitment agreement.

The plan was simple - West Germany got Turkish labourers and Turkey got less unemployment and cash remittances in return. 

Initial plans to rotate workers every two years and ban families (something that didn’t apply to guest workers from other countries) were scrapped because the employers had little interest in seeing their trained workforce disappear.

During the following twelve years 600,000 Turks took up tools in West German factories. When the 1973 oil crisis threw Germany into an economic recession, the Gastarbeiter were no longer needed. The German government cancelled the agreement and made plans to send the workers back. 

There was one problem, though. Faced with a deteriorating political and economic situation in Turkey, few wanted to return. 

On the contrary, ever more kept coming, either as regular migrants or asylum seekers. By the time Helmut Kohl started his sixteen-year stint as Bundeskanzler in 1982 over 1.5 million Turks were living in West Germany.

“They are from a different culture, more difficult to integrate than for example Eastern Europeans,” Kohl reportedly told Margaret Thatcher while informing her of his secret plan to cut the Turkish population by half. 

Kohl’s plan flopped. Just as happened a decade earlier, few wanted to go back, even when they were tempted with cash payments. 

Today the Turkish community is an integral part of German life. 

In 1994, Cem Özdemir became the first German parliamentarian of Turkish heritage. He went on to lead the Green party. In the current Bundestag, the number of members with Turkish heritage reflects the Turkish population of Germany as a whole. 

But the broader data paints a different picture than the many individual success stories of second and third generation immigrants who belong to the country’s cultural-, political- or business elite.

Turkish immigrants are less integrated than other immigrant groups, such as refugees from the former Yugoslavia. According to an exhaustive study by the Federal Office for Immigration, unemployment among Germans with Turkish roots is twice the national average. And among the close to two million Deutschtürken who are not German citizens, it’s three times that.

And therein lies one of the problems - citizenship.

To this day there are great-grandchildren of the first wave of migrants who live in Germany as Turkish nationals, without the rights that German citizenship brings. Across every metric, they are less integrated than their peers who have an eagle rather than a star and crescent on their passport.

Only in 2000, two generations after the first Turkish workers arrived, did Germany adapt its migration laws and apply the principle of jus soli to naturalization, thus giving children born in Germany to Turkish parents the right to citizenship.

But structural segregation is just one reason why many Turks have struggled to integrate. 

German industry in the 1960s didn’t just want labour, it wanted cheap labour. Hence the immigration scheme targeted the poor, rural areas of Anatolia. Many of the workers who came were illiterate and much less educated than other migrant groups. This education deficit has been passed on from generation to generation and is particularly hard to break in a country notorious for its low social mobility.

Another problem is spelled DTIB. 

The organization reports to the Turkish president and is tasked with “instructing and educating” Turks living in Germany. And by Turks DTIB means everyone, regardless of what passport they hold.

DTIB runs thousands of mosques and education centres across the country. It has been accused of spying on members of the Turkish opposition and of promoting practices contrary to German law. A set of ‘guidelines’ in circulation until 2007 included the right for men to beat their wives.

“The Turkish government is driving a rift through the German-Turkish community from Ankara," CDU deputy leader Thomas Stroble said in 2017, adding that President Erdogan’s uses DTIB to prevent Turks from integrating. 

Realizing that younger generations have role-models other than imams, the Turkish state also uses sports stars for propaganda purposes.

Two of Germany’s most prominent footballers, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, had their pictures taken with Erdogan at the height of his election campaign in 2018. Gündoğan apologised and said that he hadn’t intended to make a political statement. Özil did not. He quit the national team with a quote that made international headlines: "If we win, I'm German - if we lose, I'm an immigrant"

BionTech founder Özlem Türeci sees her husband and herself as both German and Turkish, calling herself a Turkish Prussian. And as an editorial in the Handelsblatt argues - why the fuss? First and foremost the couple are top-level researchers.


Like what you’re reading? German current affairs and news straight to your inbox three times a week. Subscribe here to get the Hochhaus newsletter:

Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.